A woman of genius
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A woman of genius

Simone Weil died 70 years ago on this day. A phrase she has left for us to ponder is the need to ‘decreate’ ourselves and our egos. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Aug 24, 2013 13:21 IST

‘Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall’.

Well, so? Nothing terrifically new about that line, that image. But consider the lines that follow.

‘The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link’.

Now that is new. Every separation is a link and, so, perhaps every link a distancing?

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, mystic and political activist who wrote those — and many other — quite unusually thought-upturning words, died this day 70 years ago. She was 34.

Many ‘walls’ had felt her knuckles communicate understanding. At the age of six, on learning that French soldiers fighting in World War I had to do without sugar, she went off the white grain. Working for the Left in the Spanish Civil War, she found that when seeing, learning, experiencing one can also convey and while conveying, one can — one must — also learn. Weil worked, clumsily as she herself admitted, but earnestly, in a factory to learn how the working class lived. When she died, in 1943, of tuberculosis, the coroner said she had actually slain herself by refusing to eat. Mahavira would have understood that act.


Brilliant of mind, she discounted that faculty or, at any rate, its efficacy in solving human misery. “The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence”, she once said, “is like the condemned man who is proud of his cell”. Nation States did not win her admiration. War, she came to abhor. Her famous work The Need for Roots has this statement: “What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Gasoline is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict.”

Spurning war, she did not become a pacifist either. “If Mr Gandhi can protect his sister from rape through non-violent means” she said, “then I will be a pacifist.” She would not be boxed into ideologies or cults. Her belief in self-effacement and detachment would have chimed in with the philosophy of Ramana Maharshi. God, she said in a startling image, had created the universe and then effaced himself from it, surrendering it to its own momentum and gravity. A phrase she has left for us to ponder is the need to ‘decreate’ ourselves and our egos. She decreated her body, her physical existence. She could not, thank God, decreate her ideas. ‘The works remain, the works alone’, says the Isha Upanishad.

Almost all her major works appeared posthumously. Among them, Oppression and Liberty examines both socialism and liberalism. Noting that both systems have their elite who dominate, she chooses, on balance, the liberal order as the less oppressive one.

TS Eliot described Weil as “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints”. The genius of saints and the sagacity of geniuses do not come together like that anymore. Our ‘saints’ have a Benedictine cleverness and are, clearly, moneyed. They also come, very often, bathed in perfume, swathed in silk. They miss the incongruity of this. Savviness, likewise, quite natural in a TV anchor is rather gross in a renunciate or a philosopher. But a smooth adroitness now marks many who don the garb of Indian sages. There is little chance of their ‘decreating’ themselves! They have publicity advisers, event managers, public relations experts and, of course, financial handlers, not to mention staff to attend to their seamless flight bookings, hotel reservations, media interactions.

If our religious spaces are over-populated, social philosophy in India does not have one Weil.

But let us remember we do have national professors. In an earlier era they would have been called Rashtragurus and venerated. The problem is we do not know who or how many national professors there are and what they are telling us, the nation, of which they are faculty. The internationally respected sociologist and anthropologist, Andre Beteille, stands out by his intellectual integrity and un-sensational outspokenness. Some other eminent thinkers share their thoughts with us about the past, present and future of India, regularly. Professors Amartya Sen, Madhav Gadgil, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, MS Swaminathan, Prabhat Patnaik, Utsa Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Jayati Ghosh, Mihir Shah, Narendra Jadhav, Nandini Sundar, Shiv Vishvanathan, Shahid Amin are among those who have kept rigorous, reasoned enquiry alive in India.

And India has, perhaps the world’s finest public commentators. I am thinking of Ramachandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Srinath Raghavan, P Sainath. And artistes like Mallika Sarabhai, Nandita Das, Rahul Bose, Arpana Caur, Vivan Sundaram, Anjolie Ela Menon who have shown sectarianism a most eloquently mailed fist.

But public discourse in India has its most priceless possession in India in the exceptional articulateness of its fearless and tireless social activists who happen to be women — foremost among them being Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and Aruna Roy. Medha Patkar may not have succeeded in terms of capping dam-heights but she has awakened the world to the dangers of giant dams and, in particular, the human dislocation and suffering that they cause. The iconic Arundhati Roy has raised admonitory dissent to a height unscaled since Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Mridula Sarabhai. And Aruna Roy has changed the political vocabulary of India by pioneering the Right to Information (RTI) Act. When she stands, frail and fragile but invincibly strong before a rural gathering and says ‘hamara paisa, hamara hisab’, she is electrifying.

And when she demands the RTI Act not be amended before comprehensive nation-wide discussions, she is in effect saying to the political establishment ‘Keep your walls, of granite, cement or steel, but do not prevent us, the people of this country, from knocking on them, to communicate, to ask questions, to get answer. Better still, open windows on them for you need some fresh air…’

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 23, 2013 23:08 IST